Syria Feature: Assessing The “Free Syrian Army” and the Supreme Military Command (O’Bagy)

Sunday, March 31, 2013| Scott Lucas in EA Middle East and Turkey, Middle East and Iran

Commander Salim Idriss Complementing EA’s analyses from James Miller and debates over the nature of the “Free Syrian Army”, we post the Executive Summary of a report by Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War:

Fragmentation and disorganization have plagued Syria’s armed opposition since peaceful protestors took up arms in December 2011 and began forming rebel groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. A lack of unity has made cooperation and coordination difficult on the battlefield and has limited the effectiveness of rebel operations. Since the summer of 2012, rebel commanders on the ground in Syria have begun to coordinate tactically in order to plan operations and combine resources. This cooperation has facilitated many important offensives and rebels have taken control of the majority of the eastern portion of the country, overrunning their first provincial capital in March 2013 with the capture of al-Raqqa city. However, rebels have been unable to capitalize on these successes, and fighting has largely stalemated along current battle fronts particularly in the key areas of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus.

In order to overcome the current military stalemate, the opposition needs to develop an operational level headquarters that can designate campaign priorities, task units to support priority missions, and resource these units with the proper equipment to execute their missions. Recently, the opposition has established a new national military structure that may grow to serve this purpose.

On December 7, 2012, rebel leaders from across Syria announced the election of a new 30-member unified command structure called the Supreme Joint Military Command Council, known as the Supreme Military Command (SMC). The Supreme Military Command improves upon previous attempts at armed opposition unification through higher integration of disparate rebel groups and enhanced communication, which suggest that it could prove to be an enduring security institution.

The SMC includes all of Syria’s most important opposition field commanders, and its authority is based on the power and influence of these rebel leaders. Its legitimacy is derived from the bottom-up, rather than top-down, and it has no institutional legitimacy apart from the legitimacy of the commanders associated with the council. Thus, the SMC is not structurally cohesive, and its ability to enforce command and control is dependent on the cooperation of each of its members.

The incorporation of rebel networks has resulted in chains of command that are not uniform across the five fronts, with each sub-unit retaining their own unique authority structures. The SMC’s primary function to date has been to serve as a platform for coordination. Regardless of the limits of its current command and control, the SMC has played an important role in syncing rebel operations with several notable successes. It has allowed for greater opportunities for collaboration and coordination among the disparate rebel groups operating in Syria.

As the SMC develops its institutional capacity, its ability to assert greater authority will likely depend on its transactional legitimacy and its ability to distribute critical resources to rebel-held communities.

To date, disparate sources of funding have significantly handicapped the rebels’ ability to unite and consolidate authority on a national level. Although private sources of funding will likely continue outside the parameters of the SMC, uniting the support channels of rebels’ main state sponsors will be fundamental to ensuring the legitimacy of the new organization. The ability to provide resources and material support to its sub-units is the determining factor in whether or not the SMC will be able to unite rebel forces under its command and establish a level of command and control. The SMC has the potential to serve as a check on radicalization and help to assert a moderate authority in Syria. If the SMC can create enough incentives for moderation it will likely be able to marginalize the most radical elements within its structure. To this end, the SMC has recognized the importance of the inclusion of some of the more radical forces, while still drawing a red line at the inclusion of forces that seek the destruction of a Syrian state, such as jihadist groups like Jabhat Nusra.

Ultimately, even if the SMC only serves as a mechanism for greater cooperation and coordination, it is a significant development in that it has united the efforts of rebel commanders across Syria. It is the first attempt at unity that incorporates important commanders from all Syrian provinces and has enough legitimacy on the ground to even begin the process of building a structure capable of providing a national-level chain of command.

Syria’s state security apparatus will collapse as the Assad regime finishes its transformation into a militia-like entity. The Supreme Military Command is currently the only organization that could serve to fill the security vacuum left by this transformation. As the Syrian opposition begins to build a transitional government, the SMC could create a framework for rebuilding Syria’s security and governing institutions if properly supported. The SMC’s ability to act as a basis for a national defense institution will be an important component in filling the power vacuum left by Assad’s fall and will aid in a secure and stable Syria.

There remain a number of critical obstacles ahead for the SMC. They include the incorporation of existing command networks, which will have an impact on command and control and resource allocation; mitigating the strength of extremist groups; and managing disparate sources of financing. Overcoming these obstacles will be difficult, especially as the nature of the conflict transforms and the sectarian polarization makes it more challenging to create a strong military institution and professional armed force. Although the SMC must do its part internally to overcome these obstacles, its success will largely depend on greater international support and access to more resources.

The goal behind U.S. support to the opposition should be to build a force on the ground that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria, with a government more likely to respect American interests. Working with the SMC could enhance America’s position vis-à-vis Syria’s armed opposition and provide a mechanism for stability should the Assad regime fall.